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Miley Cyrus High School Musical, Film Series

February 11, 2012 by staff 

Miley Cyrus High School Musical, Film Series, Once upon a time, there was a little girl. She had a dream… to be a princess. But not just any princess – she wanted to be a Disney princess.

And, once upon a time, a Disney princess was a cartoon – complete with a pink frothy gown, a Prince Charming-in-waiting, and possibly some forest animals gambolling round her skirts and glass slippers. Today, a Disney princess is quite a different construct.

For starters, she’s a teenager. She’s a kind of hyper-real take of the girl next door: perky, poppy, super-fun, but squeaky clean. She’s made her name by starring in a Disney Channel sitcom, but she’s become a crucial cog in the Brand Disney wheel – her mere presence can flog a film franchise, shift millions of records, and launch a thousand products, from pencil cases to fashion lines.

Tweenage girls – let’s define them as being between the ages of nine and 14 – will be well versed in who these show-anchoring, precocious talents are, in the UK too: the Disney Channel is the top pay-TV channel for that demographic. But even if you’ve never watched it in your life, you’re probably aware of the stratospheric stars it has spawned.

Back in the Nineties, The All-New Mickey Mouse Club – an updated version of a Fifties variety show programme on the channel – launched the careers of its little ‘Mousketeer’ presenters, a roll-call which included Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and even Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling. Then there were Disney Channel Concerts, which gave a stage for the Mousketeers, as well as other mini-popstrels like LeAnn Rimes and the Backstreet Boys, to launch singing careers.

Could these two entertainment streams be mixed? Yes, and when they were, the resulting shows-with-music would prove to be catnip for pre-pubescent girls, allowing Disney to colonise not only the tweenage TV and film market but also the music industry. Many of the next generation of big names from the mid-Noughties started in this way: Miley Cyrus in the hugely successful Hannah Montana; Zac Efron in the High School Musical movies; the Jonas brothers and Demi Lovato in the Camp Rock movies. They act, they sing, they dance. And they certainly sell.

In the last quarter of 2011, Disney’s cable network profits grew to a whopping $1.3bn, thanks to the worldwide expansion of the Disney Channel. Across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, figures have trebled in the last three years: 100 million homes now have the Disney Channel.

But if you pin your success on a five-year age range of audience, you’re also restricting yourself. Its young stars go from dreaming of being princesses to becoming fully-fledged Tween Queens, with international reign – but eventually, little girls grow up, and so do their viewers.

For the powers that be in the House of Mouse, all this creates a constant pressure to find the next Miley, the next Selena. Every show needs an anchor, a girl who viewers will fall in love with. And whatever one thinks of the shows (and if you’re not underage, you’ll almost certainly think them maddening and unfunny), you’d also have to admit most of tween queens have got a certain something, that indefinable star quality.

Keeping the empire peopled with charismatic pre-teens is Disney’s vast behind-the-scenes talent-scouting machine. I speak to Judy Taylor, who’s been in the casting game for 38 years; she was responsible for Hannah Montana, The Cheetah Girls, High School Musical and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. In Disney Channel terms, she’s a Cassandra on uppers, forever prophesising the Next Big Thing.

“There is the need to have someone who can actually anchor a show,” she explains. “We’re looking for that ‘relateability’ – and that charisma, x factor, whatever you want to call it – and that’s the most challenging.”

How does she know when she’s found it? “For me, it’s that feeling of not wanting to stop watching them. There’s just something that… pops.” She runs through a few of her lightning-bolt finds: Miley was “unforgettable”; with Selena she “knew instantly”; Debby Ryan was “immediately set apart”. You’ve either got it, or you don’t, kid.

And when they’ve got it, Disney gets in there quick. Many of their young stars will do several pilot episodes, or be kept on the books till the right vehicle comes along – or even gets created specially for them. These child stars really are one in a million. And to find them, Disney has to cast the net wide.

“We do travel round the country quite a bit,” says Taylor, who organises annual talent searches. Being based in LA, they also see auditions every day. “We have the kids come in, get a good idea of what they’re like as people, and have them read material for us. But going round the country has also made for some wonderful discoveries in f the past.” Disney’s scouts look across the US and beyond. Gregg Sulkin was a “great discovery” from Britain, who starred in As the Bell Rings; London girl Naomi Scott was in last year’s Disney Channel movie Lemonade Mouth and this year graduated to Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi series Terra Nova. “You just never know where they’re going to pop up!” enthuses Taylor.

Disney’s next hot tip is China Anne McClain. China is the 13-year-old star of A.N.T. Farm, a sitcom about unusually gifted kids; China’s talent, of course, is singing. In real life too, she has a record deal; she released her first A.N.T. Farm album in October.

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